Educational expeditions: Faculty facilitate real world experiences for students

September 19, 2016

Students got up close and personal with medieval skeletons, ancient philosophers and more during study abroad experiences this summer. 

Study Abroad Iceland
Study Abroad Iceland
Recent UM-Dearborn graduate Alexandra Slonina gathered information to assist a research team—which included Anthropology Assistant Professor Patrick Beauchesne—find out more about the Medieval civilization outside of Rome. More than 500 skeletons were excavated from the major dig and needed examined.

Alexandra Slonina read about the medieval period in Rome. And she learned about it in class. But this summer, during a study abroad experience, she physically surrounded herself with history.

Slonina, who studied anthropology and biology on campus, assisted Patrick Beauchesne, assistant professor of anthropology, in his research on the nearly 500 medieval skeletons excavated in a rural village outside of Rome to understand the health of the population—from nutritional levels to hard labor stress to oral health.

She measured femurs for possible pathological traits like diseases or bone breakage. She looked at tooth enamel to see if any growth stages were stunted due to environmental hardship. And she gained a better perspective of what life was like for these people nearly 1,000 years ago.

“Usually people are more interested in upper class populations, and don’t get the opportunity to hear more about the ‘common’ people,” said Slonina, who couldn’t share too much about her findings because the research hasn’t been published yet. “I was able to spend a month in Italy learning about their lives, and—through this experience— learning about myself.”

Slonina, who graduated in May, said the work prepared her for the next step in her career—in a way that classroom experiences couldn’t.

“There were many physical hours spent working, as well as time outside of work spent brainstorming about how their lives were in late Medieval times,” Slonina said“I learned so much from studying the skeletons, and this work definitely taught me about the Italian work ethic, the bureaucracy behind studying foreign archaeology, and how the more people you have on a project, the more possibilities there are to problem solving.”

Tangible teachings

Group of students on an Icelandic glacier.
Group of students on an Icelandic glacier.
The group visited Iceland’s Sólheimajökull Glacier, which has landscape full of ice ridges, sinkholes, streams running across the ice, and lines of ash in the ice revealing the many eruptions Iceland has experienced.

Giving the students an opportunity to see the world through another perspective and having a variety of cultural experiences are why departments across campus offer study abroad programs.

In addition to Italy, UM-Dearborn students could have taken part in study abroad experiences in places like Iceland, Canada and Greece this summer.

Philosophy Lecturer David Skrbina took 19 students to Athens, Greece, where they lived for nearly a month within walking distance to the Acropolis and did day trips to sites like the Mycenae ruins.

“Having taught philosophy here for about 13 years, I had always wanted to run a study abroad in Athens, to show the students first-hand the very places where philosophy, and much of Western civilization, began,” Skrbina said. “We can talk in class all day about Socrates and Plato, but there’s no substitute for standing in the very places that they walked, and seeing the very same things that they saw.”

Political Science Lecturer Stephen Brooks agrees—there is nothing like personal experience.

Brooks, who organizes a study abroad summer trip to Ottawa, Canada—which was started more than 30 years by the late Professor Emerita Helen Graves—said his students had an opportunity to work in the Canadian Parliament for five weeks.

In addition to their time on Parliament Hill at their placements, this year’s group of 24 students also visited a large number of related and cultural activities, such as the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, the Supreme Court of Canada, the Canadian War Museum, the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian Art Gallery. Students also spent a weekend in Montreal as part of the program, exposing them to the reality of the strong francophone presence in Canada.

“This program is about providing American students with an unmatchable opportunity to learn about Canadian politics and government by working in the office of a Canadian Member of Parliament or senator,” he said. “It provides students with a practical learning opportunity that can’t be replicated in the classroom. It is not a substitute for conventional learning, but it is a very valuable complement to the classroom.”

While the political science students learned about another government system, geology students spent their time examining Earth formations more than 2,500 miles away.

The 19 students spent two weeks in Iceland with Geology Associate Professor Jacob Napieralski and Geology Assistant Professor Mark Salvatore. College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters Dean Marty Hershock also traveled to the Nordic island nation to take part in the experience.

They examined “rootless cone” volcanic landforms in Rauðhólar—the only place on Earth where they can be found—and compared them to similar cones that exist on the planet Mars. They baked bread underground because of the high below surface temperatures. And they hiked to locations like the massive Snæfellsjökull volcano, which was the inspiration for the Jules Verne novel Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Hershock said the students traveled across Iceland applying the theoretical information learned in the classroom to real-life scenarios they encountered throughout Iceland’s landscape.

“They were studying the orientation of geologic formations, plotting these against fault lines and reading the layers of the rock strata in front of them. Many abstract things that the students had learned in their reading, lectures and labs suddenly became real,” he said. “Nothing could be more important for our students and nothing differentiates a UM-Dearborn education from its peers more than this practical approach to learning.”

Unique undertaking

And that differentiating practical approach is one reason why Beauchesne wanted to share his Rome-based research opportunity with an UM-Dearborn anthropology student.

Working on the project for more than two years, Beauchesne said many of the remains are from 1300-1400 C.E., a time when the Black Plague and major earthquakes ravaged the area.

He’s looking for answers through their bones on what happened in this particular abandoned rural village—like what was daily life like for the people in this civilization outside of Rome? —and said Slonina’s work not only gave her one-of-a-kind experience, it also helped move the research team closer to finding some answers.

Beauchesne said there were nearly 200 femora (thigh bones) to examine, and Slonina’s work measuring those helped the research team’s efforts in reconstructing activity patterns and getting a sense of overall health.

“She played an essential role in helping us complete our goals this summer. I cannot stress this enough: having Alexandra work with me this summer was invaluable and allowed us to complete this summer’s work on time,” he said. “The work ethic and focus of our students is outstanding, and Alexandra is a prime example of that.”

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